Interview: Mike Lees, managing director of Tennent's

LIKE everywhere else in the new Tennent's Training Academy, the stylish wine and spirits suite has the scent of fresh paint and fresh-cut wood. The contemporary backdrop is appropriate for a chat with Mike Lees, whose Glasgow-based brewing business is itself at the outset of a new beginning.

• Mike Lees at the Tennent's training centre, which launches its courses this week Picture: Robert Perry

The managing director of Tennent's, now part of Ireland's C&C Group, carefully avoids criticising previous owners Anheuser-Busch InBev. However, there's no getting around the fact that in 14 months under C&C's wing, Tennent's has been transformed from a business on the fringe to one at the heart of its new parent company.

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"We used to be part of a global business, and things were pretty centrally controlled. What we are now is a far more enterprising business," says Lees. "We can make decisions faster. There is a lot of autonomy in Scotland."

The new hospitality academy, constructed at a cost of nearly 1 million, is a case in point. After consultant Alan Jones first approached Tennent's with the idea of setting up a comprehensive training facility, it took just six months to pull the project together and launch the courses that are getting under way this week at the Wellpark Brewery in Glasgow.

Lees describes the academy as yet another symbol of Tennent's commitment to the pub and hospitality trade in Scotland, whose fortunes have suffered dramatically in the wake of the economic downturn.

With backing from C&C, Tennent's has already increased the amount of finance available to its customers, providing loans to publicans who want to upgrade or acquire additional premises. Lees declines to discuss specific figures, but says the response has been overwhelming, particularly as banks have shunned the pub sector in recent years.

Meanwhile, Tennent's has also signed a three-year sponsorship deal with Celtic and Rangers football clubs, and has launched the first TV-led advertising campaign to air on behalf of its lager in four years. Both moves are aimed at bolstering Tennent's market-leading position in Scotland, where it accounts for one in every three pints sold.

According to Lees, the combined strategy of assisting the sector while also raising Tennent's profile is paying off. He highlights the fact that the brewer's iconic lager is gaining share in a falling market: while industry sales are down by 5 per cent, Tennent's has slipped by just a single percentage point.

"We have had to do a number of things correctly to achieve that," he says. "All of these different factors play their part."We are in a great position to develop the business, because we have got the ability to invest at a time when others are not."

Lees notes the industry has seem "massive change" - the biggest being lifestyle changes that have driven drinkers away from beer consumption towards other types of beverages.

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One category still growing is cider, an area where Tennent's will seek to expand its sales. C&C has been using Scotland as a test market for its Magners Golden Draught since May, and Lees reckons both this and distribution of the traditional bottled Magners could reap rewards.

Meanwhile, work is in progress to increase sales of Tennent's into the Republic of Ireland and the north of England, where Tennent's sponsors Preston North End football club.

Though Tennent's has had to make efficiency savings as a result of the acquisition by C&C, employee numbers have been edging upwards and now stand at about 300. This includes 180 working in the brewery, plus a variety of roles in sales, equipment repair and marketing.

Lees says the response from staff to the acquisition by C&C has been positive, as most feel they are now a significant part of the group to which they belong. Employees have also been empowered by the drive to make Tennent's a near-autonomous unit, rather than having aspects of the operation farmed out to shared resource centres abroad.

The drive to create a holistic business unit resulted in this summer's repatriation of 23 jobs from Prague in areas such as credit control and management accounts, while 37 telesales roles have transferred from InBev to Tennent's. This was accompanied by a 7m upgrade of the Scottish operation's back office system, which is nearly completed.

Lees says the operation has now pretty much settled into its targeted format, adding: "We are on a long-term journey, but what we want to establish is Tennent's as a stand-alone, Scottish-centred business."